Fawkes Ash Wednesday

 

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that we all have a Phoenix inside us. Periodically we need to be consumed by an inferno that burns away everything temporary and fleeting.

And then in time we reemerge from the ashes, new, fresh and ready to take on the world.

 

 

 

 

Yet at this stage we may be frail and vulnerable, needing the nurture and care of mentors and a community that provide safe space in which to try our wings.

In the process we may even discover that our tears have cleansing and healing powers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entering into God’s Joy

Sermon notes for 11/16/14  Matthew 25:14-30


When we learn to use
whatever God has given us
so that it bears fruit,
then the gift we receive
is the joy of God’s presence.

It doesn’t seem fair. Those who have nothing, even what little they do have will be taken away.

We see this principle played out all the time, don’t we? Those who are strong and good looking and affluent seem to progress based on these advantages, while those who lack these resources, at least as measured by the prevailing culture, seem to fall behind or at least plateau. Perhaps one of the most absurd examples is all of the free swag given to famous singers, musicians, actors and athletes. Those who could pay 10x for these trinkets get them for nothing. Of course we quickly recognize that the producers and vendors of said products consider this a marketing expense – hoping that said entertainers will choose to wear/use the products and advertise such, these days on twitter or other social media platforms. Fair never really enters into it.

And let’s be honest, who among us wouldn’t want our product or service promoted by someone who could get us exposure? What author would say, “No thanks,” to Oprah’s book of the month club? What designer doesn’t want to “show up” on the red carpet being worn by the latest bombshell or her escort?

It’s the same on the other end. We see the poorest neighborhoods repeatedly losing basic services – like access to quality, affordable, healthy food. Developers conspire with government officials to claim eminent domain in the interest of “the public good” and displace the poor from what has been home for generations. You’ll never see them drop a football stadium in the middle of Highland Park, for instance.

Some have been inclined toward righteousness indignation directed at God for including this pronouncement in both Matthew 25 and Luke 19. As though God were saying, “Here is how I want things to work.” We need to remember a few things about this text:

  • It is not about the physical, temporal experiences of wealth and poverty in this life. It is about the Kingdom of God/Heaven and parable is a reference point.
  • Parables are not allegories with which we can extrapolate point by point referents for each element in the story. They typically illustrate one broad idea, or perhaps two.
  • Not everything in scripture is prescriptive. Not every word is God saying, “This is how I prefer things to be. This is how they will be at the consummation and final settling of accounts for all things.” At least some of scripture, including much of Jesus’ own teaching, is simply saying, “This is how things are. You’d better wake up.” For instance, when Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” we certainly would never conclude that Jesus intends, “I want there to always be some poor people.” He’s stating a simple fact. Much of the wisdom in Proverbs is of this sort – a father’s wisdom to his son: “You may not like it, but this is how the world works, and you need to be smart about things.”

Given all of this, what then is the parable about? Well, as Jesus says in the beginning of the chapter, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this .… (here he tells the parable of the wedding and the 10 brides maids, and then) .… For it is as if…” In other words, The Kingdom of Heaven is as if a man going on a journey summoned his servants…” Luke’s gospel frames the story slightly differently, but to the same effect: “As they were listening to this (Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus), he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.’” (LK 19:11-12)

In both versions we have an absent landlord/ruler who entrusts servants with resources during his absence. They had been entrusted with the resources to care for and lead the nation, and they had failed. Their resources will be taken away and given to others. Luke’s immediate context and Matthew’s broader context both make clear that a theopolitical statement is being made hear – against the rulers of the Jewish community. As with much of Jesus’ teaching regarding the religious leaders of his time, these stories remind us that we are responsible for and accountable as stewards of that which we have – resources, opportunities, relationships, even our faith and spiritual/religious understandings. All of this is we have so that we might be a blessing to others.

Whatever we have has within it the seeds of more – more life, more truth, more hope, more peace, more opportunity, more prosperity, more faith. When we

We also see in these stories the importance of taking a chance, taking a risk with our lives. This is encapsulated in the truisms: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and “With great risk comes the opportunity for great reward.” Jesus says, “Unless a seed fall to the ground and die, it cannot bear much fruit” (John 12:24). True, that the primary point here is to reflect on his own death, and thus our following his example to release our own lives for the sake of the Gospel. A starting point in this journey is that we must step outside the door into the world. Unless we show up with our gifts, then we cannot bear fruit.

I think we err when we focus on the servant who buried the coin rather than investing it. The focus rather should be on those who were good stewards of the gift entrusted to them. Their reward was not the increase, which after all belonged to the master. Their reward was to “enter into the joy of the Master.”

This text undercuts any presumption toward a “prosperity gospel”, because the prosperity is not ours. The initial gift belonged to God, so any increase also belongs to God. What is ours is the joy of God which comes to us as we use that which has been entrusted to us.

The relationship between parent and child is a good example of this. Children are precious and fragile and vulnerable. Many a parent is tempted to harbor, shelter and protect their beloved from any and all threats. But as the prophet Dory said to Marlin:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

Parents have to learn the process of releasing their children into the world, a gradual letting go and learning a delicate combination of hope and trust.

What Jesus is asking of us (requiring from us?) is that we show this same combination of hope and trust with our own lives. We need to learn to parent ourselves, to nurture and care for and finally to release and send ourselves forth into the world. We can be like the third servant who in fear simply held onto what had been given, planning to return it at the end.

Every spring a farmer takes risks by planting seeds that could be eaten now in the hope of reaping a 100 fold harvest later.

Every entrepreneur knows that you have to pour yourself heart and soul into your idea, your dream, your scheme, and believe that it can succeed. Otherwise, you’d never start.

Every business person knows that it takes money to make money.

Every newlywed couple enters into their covenant relationship with hope and trust, but without certainty except that there will undoubtedly be difficult times, and that one will eventually grieve the loss of the other.

If all we plan to do is hand Jesus back the faith that has been given to us, the spiritual gifts entrusted to us, the church and gospel of which we are stewards, then even what we have will be taken away. We enter into God’s joy when we take risks.

Again I’m reminded of the end of the Mary Oliver poem “A Summer Day”. What if the parable is at least in part about your life? Could it be that there is a suggestion embedded within the text that your experience in the afterlife depends at least in part on what you do in this life? That is certainly the overt message of the next parable, so perhaps this one at least hints in that direction. This life is the only one of its kind that you will be given, whatever can or cannot be said of the afterlife from a Christian perspective. Don’t waste it on fear or resentment of others or of God.

It is also, I believe, about The Church. The church does not exist as a memorial to those who have gone before. It is not a mausoleum or a museum. The church buildings and property and resources are not here to be a witness of those who came before, but of the kingdom that is coming. These things around us are of worth and value only if they help us live and share the hope of the Good News. Imagine that you are characters in the parable, and all your church resources are the talents given. Eventually, Jesus will ask for an accounting, “What did you do with what I gave you?” How will you be able to answer?

When the Master comes, may he find us ready and eager rather than fearful or unprepared. Then, if not before, we will realize that we have been living in God’s joy all along.

Learning and Teaching the Catechism

I’m prepping for my first session of a catechism class – ever. I’m teaching the Christian Faith to a group of youth through a process I personally never experienced. Had we stayed in the Presbyterian church I would have participated in a Faith Formation process prior to catechism. But since we moved from Pennsylvania to Texas when I was 9, and from the Presbyterian church (infant baptism followed by catechism at “the age of reason”) to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (baby dedication followed by Pastor’s class and baptism at “the age of reason”) I got 6 weeks of special instruction rather than a year or more. Nothing so deep as the 128 questions if the Evangelical Catechism, used in the United Church of Christ or even the new and much briefer New City Catechism.

Catechism is an English translation of Katecheo which means “to instruct orally” with a root meaning literally “to pass down”. Disciples don’t even use creeds, except the non-creed-creed “No Creed but Christ!“. We Disciples have much to say about  who we aspire to be, how we believe God works in the world, and what we believe God calls us to be and do. We are less confident in speaking about God’s nature.

I’m particularly struck by the tension between the United Church of Christ being one of the more progressive (and they hope diverse) of mainline denominations yet holding to the Evangelical Catechism as the foundation for confirmation class. Granted, the particular congregation where I currently serve as Interim Pastor still relates mentally, emotionally and spiritually to their Evangelical and Reformed roots. Even so, it is interesting.

I am looking forward to prayerfully studying and discussing the confirmation class books and study guides. I’ll be reading and reflecting on the Catechism’s questions and answers and scripture references. I’m curious to see how my own faith matures and develops as I walk this ancient path with these young people, their mentors and families.

How have you experienced the tensions between teaching or learning the ancient, traditional, orthodox faith in the midst of progressive, secular, post modern cultural influences?

Veterans can find meaning and purpose as they design a new life using existing skills

What if Veterans were helped to not only translate their skills to civilian careers, but to dig deeper into their hopes, dreams and passions? What if they were helped to articulate and pursue a sense of calling and vocation? A holistic life and career coaching process would allow them to flourish by integrating every aspect of their self – body and spirit, relationships and emotions, work and intellect. If we want veterans to find wholeness, we need to relate to them as whole persons, not fragmented and compartmentalized segments.

VeteransDay2014The various branches of the US Military do an excellent job of teaching and developing women and men in particular ways beyond making them warriors: physical fitness, discipline, teamwork, and leadership along with specific job related skills. Active duty and veterans are also able to acquire course of study certifications or undergraduate and graduate degrees. These competencies help equip them to make the transition to civilian life, if they are able to clear several other hurdles.

Upon discharge and return to civilian life many veterans suffer from a sense of hopelessness that is complex in its origins and scope. At its worst this despair leads to suicide, as David Wood reminds us in his 2014 Veterans Day post. Some of these background issues are categorized as medical or psychological (including but not limited to PTSD), and the VA is working to improve its ability to address those. There is a growing recognition that something else is at work which has recently been labeled “Moral Injury“. The Soul Repair Center under the direction of Rita Nakashima Brock at Brite Divinity School, TCU is one of the organizations leading the effort to address Moral Injury. They are developing creative and collaborative ways to build capacity within communities that will support veterans and their families.

While the label “moral injury” may be new, the concept is not. When I served for a year as a resident chaplain at the Dallas VA Medical Center I was privileged to work in a program for homeless vets. One of our primary tasks was to provide room for them to reflect on their experience from a spiritual perspective so that they could identify the spiritual and religious resources that may be at their disposal for addressing the struggles they face. These studies clearly indicated that a spiritual component was present in the difficulties veterans faced, as well as in their resolution.

I want to suggest that this may carry over into their transition to the civilian workforce. The spiritual nature of human labor as meaningful and productive and creative may go back to prehistoric times where religious rituals were connected to various trades and crafts as well as hunting and agriculture. People often associate identity with work, whether their tasks are creative, destructive, or neutral. One of the difficulties people have with their work is that it may not provide them any sense of meaning or purpose, and yet it occupies the bulk of their waking hours.

A feast prepared for all people

Sermon Notes 10/12/14      Isaiah 25:1-9      Psalm 23     Philippians 4:1-9


A feast prepared for all people.

God’s feast is for all people – not just the chosen, or the faithful, or the believers. God lifts the veil and sets the table for all people and nations. How have we as church tried to share or limit God’s generosity?

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Where do I live under the shadow and fear of scarcity?
  • Where do I live the generosity of abundance and enough?
  • Where do I or have I experienced a feast? How does that story help me understand God’s goodness and provision?
  • When have I been welcomed to someone else’s feast? What was that like?

A feast prepared for all people.

When is the last time you attended a feast? How do you know? How do you draw the distinction between a meal, a banquet, and a feast? I suspect that every culture has an image of a feast – usually in honor of an individual or communal life event – a birth, coming of age, marriage or death. In the US we have some 20 & 21st images that often come to mind – the iconic paintings of the First Thanksgiving with American Immigrant Pilgrims in black hats and Native Americans in feather headdresses all gathered around a table overflowing with all kinds of natural bounty. I can’t hear the word feast without thinking of Dr. Seuss and all his Whos down in Whoville celebrating Christmas, and the Grinch carved the Roast Beast. More recent film has given us the Hogwarts feasts with never-ending food that just keeps appearing.

In the New Testament we see Jesus perform his first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2). These were celebrations that went on for several days – sometimes as many as 7 days. Jesus uses the image of a feast to illustrate the Kingdom of God in Matthew 22. The point in these two stories as in the passage from Isaiah is similar – God desires that we would relish in the bounty of God’s goodness. Too often, however, we choose the scraps we can produce for ourselves rather than the abundant good that is available to us.

In the passage from Isaiah 25, the prophet recalls how God humbled the proud and powerful. At the same time, God has been “a refuge to those in distress” (25:4). Then comes the promise of ultimate restoration and renewal: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines… (25:6) The feast will be “for all peoples” – i.e. all nations, tribes or people groups. The vision offered starting with Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 is that all people will be blessed. Yes, God calls a people to be set apart and holy – first Abraham and his descendants, the 12 tribes of Jacob / Israel. Later the church is grafted in to the people of Israel and the covenant is renewed – a New Covenant in water and in blood, in the Spirit and Fire. All of these are not simply because God plays favorites – they are called and formed “to be a blessing”. They are called to communicate that

A feast will be prepared for all people.

This story moves in three stages:

  • We recognize our current state. Are we those of power who have been brought low, or are we the poor and needy who find refuge in the LORD? Perhaps both?
  • We understand and accept that God is calling us to the feast that is being prepared. God wants us to live in abundance and blessing. God continually works and calls out to us. Finally, we come to the end of our striving, and we accept that God loves us and receive the blessings that God has for us.
  • We follow Christ out to the world to proclaim the feast for all and to bring others in.

Part of the challenge for a church is that simultaneously we include people who are at each of these three stages. Some folks are just coming to terms with their reality. Others are receiving the call to discipleship and beginning their journey with Jesus. Still others are venturing out of the boat to walk with Jesus to the ends of the earth. And honestly, each of us at that third stage circle back to stages one and two occasionally.

There have been seasons in my life and ministry when I have awoken as from a dream, only to realize that I’ve built a house of cards that is beginning to collapse around me. This can happen in any area of our lives – our profession, our marriage, parenting or other relationships, our physical health. It happens at the personal, communal, national and global scale. When a major financial collapse comes as in 2008-9, what can be said but that people of pride and power built a house of cards using their own cleverness and capacity rather than leaning on the wisdom and power and grace of God. There are multiple explanations for why the collapse happened – globalization, a weak dollar, deregulation of banks and the subprime mortgage fiasco – but any version is still a house of cards horror story with hubris and blind ignorance as the central narrative.

That same scenario could be repeated with any of our crisis and collapse chronicles. Think of the current Ebola crisis, or the efforts to respond to the shifting landscape of militaristic misappropriations of the Islamic faith. We ignore warnings, and the evidence before our eyes, because we think we know best. We desperately want to believe our own version of events. One of our difficulties is that we believe the lie of limited resources. The result is that we often fight over what resources we perceive in a perpetual win/loose downward cycle of decay.

The Truth is completely opposite. We live in a world of abundance, a universe of unimaginable capacity, and serve a God of limitless possibilities. Each of us has limits, certainly. Collectively we are limited too. Even if you and I pool our resources, it won’t be enough to do all we want or desire. BUT… if we will recognize our limitations, accept the grace and power available to us, we will find that we have enough. The path forward is the same for all – the three stages identified above.

The feast is not the end of the story. Isaiah continues: And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. (25:7) A veil of fear and darkness prevents us from seeing God’s abundant provision available in creation and in each other through community. We cannot lift the veil off our own eyes. Only the power of Spirit can do this. We must be willing to let it be lifted. When Jesus said to Lazarus, “Come out!” Lazarus might have chosen to stay in the tomb. (John 11) Even when he did come out there was work to be done: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11:44) “Remove the veil of darkness, the covering of death!” And the next scene is a feast – “they gave a dinner for him…” (John 12)

Jesus has now given this ministry to his disciples. We are given the privilege of speaking these word to one another and the world that Jesus has spoken over us:

  • Come out of your tomb – God’s power and our response
  • Have the veil of darkness removed – the support of our community
  • Join in the feast

Now this could all lead us toward a name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel or some Polly-Anna-ish version of our faith that says if we will just believe in Jesus then everything will work out great for us. This of course is not true, at least not in the present physical realm. We know at least three reasons for this:

Paul offers us some very useful counsel at this point as he writes to his friends in the Philippian church in chapter 4:4-9. He tells us how to pray. He assures us not that everything will magically be fixed, but that we will receive peace in heart and mind, even in the midst of difficulty. Then Paul proceeds to tell us how to manage our thoughts, where to focus our attention. He says, “Don’t worry,” but he does not leave it at that. He understands that we have some choices that we can make:

  1. Where we look for strength and security (ourselves or God)
  2. How we respond to situations (Fear and grasping or gratitude and generosity)
  3. How we treat other people (with harshness or gentleness)
  4. What we think about (what is difficult and dark or what is good)
  5. What we do as a result of these thoughts (what we want, or what Jesus has taught us)

When we who are people of faith and have known the goodness of The Lord and the bounty of His feast find ourselves in trouble, Paul offers us a way forward. If we will make ourselves available to others in openness and generosity of spirit, they will tell us where they hurt and struggle and need support. God will then work through us to offer them hope, to welcome them to

the feast that is prepared for all people.

Virtual Ash Wednesday

Secular and religious people have many important things in common. One of those, that is being remembered and honored by Christians today, is the need to experience repentance and forgiveness. Who among us has not fallen short of the moral, ethical or relational standards we set for ourselves, to say nothing of the standards others try to set for us? When I fail to honor the sacredness of friendship and love. When I make a promise that I am unable to keep. When I speak words in anger or fear that assault and wound. When I neglect my duty to nurture and care. When I tear down rather than build up, degrade rather than construct, poison rather than nourish. When my silence supports systems of oppression, particularly when I then gain in the process.

When I do these things, what then? How can I move from this position to a status of restored relationship? What can I offer, what do I need to receive? Who can help?

In my own life, I have found the story of Jesus to be a compelling witness to my own brokenness and frailty and lack, because he shared in it, even to the point of death and fear of the same. For me the greatest pain in my own failures is not that I have committed them, but that I may be unable to experience restoration. What if things can’t be repaired (some can’t)? What if time runs out and I never get to say, “I’m sorry,” and hear, “You are forgiven”? What if… I live not in certainty, but in hope.

I hope that you know where to turn, to whom you can go, to find the help that you need when you face these issues in your own life. I also hope that you are able to extend compassion and mercy to others, not because they deserve it, but because you need it too.